Phnom Penh, Cambodia – The international body that oversees World Heritage Sites requested on June 17 the cancelation of oil exploration permits in Virunga National Park, some of which are currently held by international petroleum conglomerates, including UK-based Soco International PLC and French oil giant Total SA.
Located in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and one of the continent’s first World Heritage Sites. It was inscribed in 1979 in recognition of its extraordinary landscapes, and because it is home to more species than any other place in the continent.
The World Heritage Committee, a rotating group of countries that manages the UNESCO World Heritage List, said it is deeply concerned that Virunga could be degazetted or that laws could be changed so that oil concessions covering 85 per cent of the park’s territory could be exploited.
Conservation organizations warn that oil exploration could cause the site to lose its World Heritage status and would put in peril local livelihoods and rare species. Total SA last month pledged to stay out of the park’s current boundaries, but remains active just outside its borders. Soco International PLC has not made a commitment to respect the integrity of the park.
“Virunga National Park is one of the last places on Earth you should go looking for oil,” said René Ngongo, Mining and Extractives Policy Advisor at WWF-DRC. “The park is of global conservation importance and is vital for the livelihoods of many people living around it. We are urging alternative development models that are sustainable for the long term – development that provides real benefits to local communities and does not put endangered species at risk.”
The World Heritage Committee also turned its attention to the responsibilities member countries have as parties to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Governments were urged in a decision “to do their utmost to ensure that the mining or petroleum companies established on their territories do not damage World Heritage properties.”
During debate over potential oil exploration in Virunga, the one committee member stressed the particular responsibility of corporations based in countries that are signatories to the World Heritage Convention. “World Heritage Sites have been recognized for their outstanding universal value. We are monitoring closely the situation in African World Heritage Sites, including Virunga, and reiterated today that oil exploration is incompatible with the spirit of the convention,” the committee member from Estonia said.
“The World Heritage Committee has made it clear today that these precious places are no-go areas for damaging extractive activities,” said Christof Schenck, Chief Executive Officer of Frankfurt Zoological Society. “Oil exploration could destroy Virunga forever and must not go forward.”